Monday, May 19, 2014
"Oh, Man, Get Out of My Boat!" Captain Nguyen Quoc Dinh Remembers the Fall of Saigon
Captain Nguyen Quoc Dinh
I was an officer in the South Vietnamese Navy in April 1975 and I was assigned to a small boat with a crew of six people. It was called a PCF – Patrol Craft Fast. We worked only along the seacoast in Vietnam. I patrolled the coastal zone looking for contraband and for Vietcong trying to bring in supplies. We didn’t see much action. In the Delta the Communists were strong but along the coast they were not.
I was quite young when I was commissioned as a captain in 1969. I attended Officers’ Candidate School [OCS] in the United States. By the time I joined the Navy they needed officers, but we had only one training school in South Vietnam. So the Americans helped us train officers in OCS in Newport, Rhode Island. I learned English in Vietnam after graduation from basic training. They sent me to an English school taught by an American soldier, eight hours a day.
I don’t know much about politics, but the Paris Agreement of January 1973 worried me some. After the American troops were all withdrawn in March 1973 the Americans began cutting off supplies to us and we began to run out of fuel and ammunition. On my boat, some parts broke and some days we had to wait a long time for replacements. Then we had to cut back on patrols because of the fuel shortage. Before the Paris Agreement I could patrol all day and all night but after the agreement I could only patrol for a few hours every day.
Then in the spring of 1975 I was in Qui Nhon and I picked up some civilians and some soldiers on the coast after the abandonment of the central highlands. After that I went to Cam Ranh Bay with my boat and withdrew some more people and took them back to Saigon.
I saw that the situation was real bad. There was no good plan and the troops just abandoned everything and ran.
When the withdrawal began out boat continued to patrol. There were a lot of refugees in a bad situation along the coast. Some soldiers who had withdrawn on orders got mad and they turned out to be bad guys. They raped women on the same boat with them.
Some refugees went to Phu Quoc Island. I was never there but I learned that the situation there was bad too. I transferred up to Qui Nhon, then. As the theater of war got smaller we stopped patrolling. I did whatever they ordered me to do. They told me to do nothing so I did nothing. The high-ranking officers didn’t seem to know what was going on so they just stopped giving orders. They wanted to keep the people calm so they didn’t do anything, but I don’t think they really knew what was going on. My crew members asked me, “What’s going on?” and I said, “I don’t know what is going on. Nobody does.”
I patrolled a little bit on my own trying to find frogmen who might try to destroy some of our ships but I did not find any.
Then on April 29th, 1975, I didn’t know what was going on any more. My boat was being repaired that day. One of the engines had broken down. We were about ten miles from Saigon on the Saigon River. I saw the American helicopters start to come in. I really had not thought earlier about leaving the country. I never even dreamed of it. Then on the 29th the military leaders said that they were going to reorganize the Navy. They said we should go to Con Son Island. When they told me that I thought maybe we would lose the whole country. But my family was still in Saigon and I did not want to leave them behind. So I thought I would go to Saigon and pick up my family first. I went back to Saigon. But some of my crew did not want to do that. So some of the men went in a boat directly to Con Son Island and some of them came with me to the Navy headquarters about one mile from my home in Saigon. The other Navy ships had already pulled out of Saigon. I didn’t really know where the bigger ships were going, they did not tell anybody. I got into Saigon about midnight. It was really crowded and chaotic around the port facilities and people were trying to crowd on to all of the available ships. I thought people might try to steal my boat, people from the Army, maybe. So I had a crew of five men and I left three of them to guard the boat, and I left with one of my friends and we went home. People were out on the streets. I walked by the American Embassy and saw the people crowded around the front gate. I tried to get a motorcycle there. Cars and motorcycles were abandoned all over the streets. They said there was a curfew, but it was enforced. It was at night and there were many fires and I saw people standing on the roof of the Embassy but I didn’t see any helicopters landing. Some people were trying to get in, but I think they knew that they couldn’t get in any more. This was about two in the morning on April 30th. It took me about one hour to walk home. I still had on my uniform and my helmet. I felt that I was ready for combat then.
My family was still at home and they didn’t know what was happening around them. They were very scared. My father, who had been a Saigon policeman, was concerned, but he didn’t know how to get out of the country. There were my parents and eight children – ten people in the family that I had to get out of the country. Earlier the Air Force pilots tried to take some of their families to Thailand but they were caught and brought back to Vietnam. They told us that if we tried to leave we would arrest us and put us all in jail.
I brought home a couple of hand grenades and some handguns, and I told m mom that if the Communists came into the house I would kill them all and kill myself with them. And my mother said that whatever I wanted to do I could do. I said that I might kill the whole family and we would all die together and she said that was all right, too. I didn’t know if I could do that, but that is what I told my family. Then my father also said that was all right, too.
I didn’t know if the country had been lost by that time, for sure. But I had brought other weapons home a week earlier, because I thought that no matter what happened, sooner or later I would be dying and I wanted my family to take care of itself if I was gone.
I was the man of the family. My father really couldn’t do anything. I really didn’t know where he would go or what he would do if we left the city.
But I decided we would all go. I said to my mother and father, “If you want to get out, then come with me now.” I had a motorcycle at home and so I took two children on the motorcycle to the port. I dropped them off there and then went back and got two others. My boat was still anchored there and there was still a big crowd around the boats. They didn’t take the boat because of my men guarding it. My boat stayed in the middle of the river and came back and forth to the docks when I brought my family to the river. I called them over each time.
After my second trip I told my friend to go pick up the rest of my family. Some of the men were very scared and they thought that if they left the boat I would leave without them. But I assured them I would wait until noon for them. And still they decided to stay on the boat rather than leave to get their relatives. Seven members of my family came out eventually. My father and brother and another sisters stayed in our house. They wouldn’t come out. My sister was a teacher at that time and she and her husband didn’t want to leave.
I was getting madder by the moment that morning of April 30th. People and businessmen came to my boat while we were waiting for my family. They handed me a lot of dollars and gold and I told them, “Oh, man, get out of my boat.” I shot up in the air to get them away. They begged me and cried out, but I did not have room for them. I told my men to throew these people out of the boat, and they did. Some had their wives and children with them and their suitcases. But I had to bring my own family out. I wanted to take care of my family first.
A lot of people had guns but they didn’t come on board because they didn’t think my boat could make it out. I had some forty people in my boat by that time. It was pretty crowded. The boat was about ten meters long and about three meters wide and had two levels.
We finally left late in the morning on April 30th, about eleven o clock. We went down the river to the South China Sea. We had to go out past Rungsat where there were a lot of Communist soldiers and the river was very narrow there and it was dangerous to pass through. Two other boats accompanied us. I was scared because it was a small boat and one rocket could have killed everyone. We saw a bigger boat coming down the river, a civilian boat, with a lot of rich people on it. It was named the Vong Hong Ni. They had about three hundred people on board. I pulled up to them and told them to stop. I held my gun in my hand and I told them I would shoot them if they didn’t stop. They were afraid of me so they stopped and they let us come on board. We cut our smaller boat loose and let it float away. We went out past Vung Tau and we saw the American Seventh Fleet. We thought they had come to pick us up but then they sailed away without us. A Vietnamese Navy ship came by us and we followed them for seven days and seven nights.
Finally we came to the Philippines, to Subic Bay, and from there we were taken to Wake Island and then to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Then we were moved to New York City.
dI tried to write a letter to my father after that to tell him we were safe. But I could not write directly to him. So I sent it to a neighbor who lived near our home. They received it and delivered the letter to my sister. And so she learned that we had made it out to safety in the United States. My father had already been sent to a reeducation camp and he spent five years there. He had just been a captain in the police so I don’t know why they sent him to a camp for that long.
He was finally released in 1980. He tried to come out with my sister and brother on a boat – as boat people. We sent them money to buy gold so they could get out. But my father did not make it. The boat had too many people on it. It was supposed to have forty people but they had 120 people on it because they owner of the boat was so greedy. He thought it would take only two days to sail to Malaysia but it took seven days and nights. They had no pilot and they ran into storms at sea. So my father starved to death during the trip to Malaysia. My sister and her two daughters and my brother survived. But her husband also died during the journey. There was water rapidly leaking into their boat and he worked so hard to bail the water out and to save his family that in the end he died of exhaustion.
My life is much better here, to tell you the truth. And a lot of my friends say the same thing. If I had a chance to go back to Vietnam I don’t know what I would do, really. Some nights in New York City I had nightmares. I dreamed I was in Vietnam again and that the Communists took me to their reeducation camp. I had those nightmares for a couple of months. But I don’t have them any more.
[Captain Nguyen Quoc Dinh died of lung cancer in the summer of 1987 in San Jose, California, shortly after this interview took place.]